Augustine's Confessions are addressed to God but for centuries others have been listening in, as of course Augustine intended them to do. The powerful narrative of his life stirs the reader and presents Christian faith in the context of the sinful human's desire for it, resistance to it, and final acceptance.
Augustine was born in Tagaste, Numidia, in 354. His father, Patricius, was a pagan (who was, however, baptized before he died). Monica, his sainted mother, was already a Christian. Since infant baptism was not yet a custom, Monica enrolled her son as a catechumen and endeavored to instill in him a love of Christ. But if Augustine's home-schooling was Christian, his official education was another matter. Not that Augustine paints a flattering picture of himself as a student -- he says he was giddy, lazy, and a hater of Greek. Having studied grammar in Tagaste, he continued his studies at Madaura, where his morals declined. Despite this, he did well; his father determined to send him to Carthage, but only after the lapse of a year. Augustine spent a year of idleness at home, and when he went to Carthage to study rhetoric, his moral downfall was completed. At the age of 18 he fathered a son, Adeodatus, by a woman with whom Augustine lived until his thirty-third year.
A turning point came in his life when he read the Hortensius of Cicero, a dialogue which exhorts to immortal wisdom. "That book transformed my feelings, turned my prayers to you, Lord, changed my hopes and desires. Suddenly I despised every vain hope and desired with an unbelievable fervor of heart the immortality of wisdom, and I began then to rise and return to thee," (Conf. III, iv)
But when he began to teach rhetoric the next year in Tagaste and later in Carthage, it was to Manicheism, not Christianity, that he turned. Manicheism professed to be based on reason alone, no faith necessary, and delighted in pointing out supposed contradictions in the Scriptures. But it was the Manichean approach to moral evil that attracted Augustine. It answered to something he had already been doing. "For before then it had seemed to me that it is not we who sin, but some unknown nature within us, and it soothed my pride to be guiltless and, having done something evil, not to have to confess I did it in order to excuse myself and accuse that unknown something in me that was not I." (V,x) Augustine remained a Manichean for nine years, until 383. Eventually, his study of the doctrines produced difficulties, and he was told that when Bishop Faustus came he would resolve them all. This proved untrue and Augustine left the Manichean sect.
At the age of twenty-nine Augustine went to Rome to teach but, disappointed in his students, continued on to Milan. There he studied Platonic philosophy, but then he met Ambrose, began to attend his sermons in the cathedral and became once more a catechumen. He was stirred by reading Plotinus; he decided to form a community that would be devoted to the pursuit of truth. And then he turned to Scripture. Stories of conversion to Christianity had stirred him, but then came the famous scene recounted in the Confessions. A child's voice beyond the wall cried "Take and read, take and read." Augustine picked up the Scriptures and read from the Epistle to the Romans, 13, 13: "not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought of its lusts." All his doubt and hesitation were swept away. The year was 386. He was thirty-three years old.
He stopped teaching and retired to a country place at Cassiciacum with his mother, son, and a few friends, to prepare himself for baptism. This happened on Holy Saturday, 387, at the hands of St. Ambrose. As the party returned to Africa, Monica, her lifelong prayer answered, died at Ostia. (Her tomb is in St. Augustine's church in Rome.) At home in Tagaste, Augustine set up what amounted to a monastic community. After a few years, in 391, he was ordained priest after a popular petition, and moved to Hippo, where he set up another community. His preaching and writing were directed against enemies of the faith. Thus began a literary effort that would continue throughout his long life. In 396 he became coadjutor bishop of Hippo, and succeeded the following year. There, in this obscure diocese, he spent his life, but his influence radiated out of Africa to the continent and has continued down the centuries. By common consent Augustine is one of the giants of the Latin Church. He died on August 28, 430, at the age of 76.
There is doubt whether Augustine actually read Plato, but from various sources he became knowledgeable in Platonism and, like many others before and since, felt there was a great affinity between Platonism and Christianity. Indeed, with respect to the central Platonic doctrine, the Ideas, Augustine in a famous text (83 Diverse Questions, q. 46), gave an interpretation of the Ideas, which, while not original with him, was because of his statement of it vastly influential. On this view, the Ideas are the creative patterns according to which God produces creatures. The analogy is of the artisan who realized in matter the form he has imagined. If God did not create according to an Idea, the impious conclusion would be that he acts without knowing what he is doing. The Word, the Logos, that was with God from the beginning, is the second person of the Trinity and the locus of the Ideas.
All this may seem a far cry from what we actually have in Plato, but this was the Platonism that defined the intellectual life of the Christian West for centuries. Not that Augustine, or others, were uncritical followers of Platonism. The suggestion that the soul had pre-existed the body, for example, had to be rejected by Christians. And the account of learning took a new turn.
The dialogue On the teacher was one of the works Augustine completed at Cassiciacum. In it, in dialogue with his son, Adeodatus, he asks what teaching and learning require. Can one human being teach another? It is a fascinating exchange and, in the Retractationes, Augustine insists with paternal pride that the words attributed to his son were indeed his son's words. Adeodatus died young and there is sorrow as well as pride involved in this tribute.
Augustine establishes that words alone cannot generate knowledge, yet words are the instruments of the teacher. Furthermore, the learner does not want to know what the teacher knows, he wants to know it himself. But what is the cause of the activity of learning if it cannot be the teacher? The human teacher, that is. "You have but one teacher, Christ." This verse from Matthew is the motto of the dialogue. Sensible things cannot be the adequate causes of ideas, which are not sensible. Words too are sensible things. There must be a commensurate cause of thinking, of learning, and that cause is Christ the teacher teaching within the soul.
Difficulties were raised with this argument, and Augustine spent a good deal of time explaining to inquirers what he had not meant. He did not, of course, mean that Christ literally conveys knowledge to the soul, since then it would be difficult to distinguish between natural knowledge such as arithmetic, on the one hand, and the revealed mysteries of the Christian faith, on the other. The positive doctrine was that there is in the human soul a spark of divinity, that in virtue of which we are said to be made in the image and likeness of God, and it is this that makes intellectual knowledge possible. Augustine is driven to this as Plato was driven to the doctrine of Ideas. Sensible singulars are not sufficient causes of the activity of thinking which is not itself a sensible or material process. The transcendent Ideas supplied the adequate object, and cause, of human intellectual knowledge. Augustine had lodged the Ideas in the second person of the Trinity who is incarnate in Christ. Our affinity with the ideas is a light in the soul which is a share in or participation in the light that is the Word. In the 13th century both those who held an illuminationist theory of human knowledge and those who held an abstractionist view aligned themselves with Augustine.
In the Soliloquies Augustine confessed that there were only two things he really wished to know, God and the soul. As for God, it was Augustine's view that the majority of men are aware of His existence, although this knowledge contains many errors and confusions. The civic theology and the theology of the poets is decried by Augustine. But it is possible from a consideration of the things of this world to get some intimation of God. The order and proportion of the things around us is what is grasped by the senses and the mind. The hierarchy of things leads us upward to their source. "But if you can find creatures other than those which exist without life, those which exist and have life, but not understanding, and those which have existence, life, and understanding, then you might dare affirm that there is some good which does not come from God. These three types can be designated by two names: body and life. The name 'life' applies properly either to those beings having only life without intelligence, like the animals, or to those having intelligence, like men. But these two, namely body and life, insofar as they pertain to creatures (for the creator, too, has life and that is life supreme), these two creatures, then, body and life, being perfectible, as we have seen above, and such that they would fall into nothingness if they should completely lose their perfection, sufficiently indicate that they derive their existence from that which exists ever the same." (On the Trinity, II, 17, 46) "God is known more truly than he is spoken of, and he is more truly than he is known." (VII,4,7) Augustine's favored way of arriving at God does not consist of looking at things around us, but retiring within the soul. "Go not abroad but enter into yourself: truth dwells in the inner man; and if you should find your nature mutable, transcend yourself." (On true religion, 39, 72).
As for the soul, the mark of its immortality is found in its capacity to know in a way that transcends the material order. Not being material, it is not subject to the corruption that is the destiny of bodily things. The soul must be as lasting as the truth of its object, and truth is eternal. Early in his career, Augustine flirted with the idea that the soul antedated the body, but he came to reject this, as well as the notion that knowing is remembering, which seems to suggest such an antecedent state.
In his massive work On the Trinity, Augustine finds in the soul many suggestions of the Trinity of divine persons.
We return to the work that we first mentioned, the huge twenty-book tome that Augustine composed in response to the charge that turning from the pagan religion had brought disaster on Rome. In 410 A.D. Rome was sacked by Alaric the Goth, who as it happens was a Christian. The unthinkable had happened. Rome, the center of the civilized world, had been subdued by barbarians from the North. Was this a punishment because the new religion had made such gains in the empire?
The polytheistic worshipers of false gods, whom we commonly call pagans, endeavored to bring this overthrow home to the Christian religion, and began to blaspheme the true God with unusual sharpness and bitterness. This set me on fire with zeal for the house of God, and I commenced to write the books Of the City of God against their blasphemies and errors. (Retractions)
But if that was the inspiration of the work, it became an omnium gatherum, including in Book Eight Augustine's account of the history of philosophy. But the unifying theme is that there are two cities, the City of Man and the City of God. Augustine tells us that the first ten books are the refutation of attacks against the Christian religion. They are followed by twelve books in which the accent is on the positive account of Christianity. It is there that we are told of the origin of the two cities, and the course of their respective histories and how they will end.
The origin of the City of Man is self-love, contempt of God, whereas the origin of the City of God is love of God in contempt of oneself. The first seeks the glory of men, the second the glory of God. Cain and Abel represent the opposition of the sons of flesh and the sons of promise. Membership in the one city or the other, while the criterion of each choice is clear, is not written in stone in this life. Augustine is not saying that here and now, it is simply a matter of observation as to where the two cities and their citizens are. The final sorting out will not be made in time but only at the end of the world at the final judgment.
Simply to acquire an acquaintance with the vast literary output of Augustine is a huge task, but to comprehend his works can occupy a lifetime. So much of what he wrote is in response to an occasion -- a heresy, a charge, an inquiry. For all his productivity, his works do not seem to be the product of reflective leisure. But this vast evangelizing task proceeded from the inner life, into which we get a glimpse in the Confessions, the inner life that is the source of all his work and the reason why we call him Saint Augustine.
Writing Assignment. Give an outline of The City of God in a page or two. This could be a memo to yourself, the result of just paging through the text to see what it contains and consulting one of the histories.